Botswana Field Trip

Osteopathy in the bush

by Tony Nevin, BSc (Hons) Ost, DO Zoo Ost Ltd

It's not every day that one gets an e-mail enquiring if you can do anything to help improve the carpus function of a 5.5 tonne elephant. It’s not every day that you find out that this elephant lives in one of the most picturesque parts of the world. The brain cells kick into action and 25 years’ worth of experience of working with these majestic beasts is called into play. It’s time for a field trip to the pristine Okavango delta to look at my largest patient to date.

At this point I had no idea what kind of accommodation I could expect, other than it would be fairly remote. As it turned out I was to stay at a remote location set away from the tourist areas, and very kindly put up by a charming couple who run the “Living with Elephants” Foundation. The camp we were in was open to all of the neighbours, so I was in my element, and had to concentrate to keep my focus on the work at hand. Anyone who knows me will know how difficult a task this will have been!

The patient I had flown out to see was a majestic bull elephant, standing 11.5 feet at the shoulder and weighing in at around 5.5 tonnes. He had sustained an injury to his right front carpus (wrist) in an altercation with a fully wild bull, and then later managed to strain it further in the wet.

As I was to discover there are some pretty slippery surfaces out there when it rains, and sections that look solid (and are when they’re dry) become similar to skating rinks following a storm.

Before attempting any examination and treatment (I had already been thoroughly briefed on his history, seen the radiographs and other test results) it seemed prudent to let him just get to know me. So having freshly arrived in the bush via a little Cessna 206 single engine plane, I dropped my bags in my tent and donning sunglasses and bush hat set off to meet him and Douglas Groves, with his wife Sandi as my guide. It was great to be somewhere where there were very little signs of human activity. Just the occasional tyre track in the sand to suggest someone had passed through the area. The wildlife was suitably relaxed and un-phased to see us walking through the bush. Even the giraffe we saw wandered closer to take a look!

When I met Jabu, the patient, it was clear that he is a very handsome fella, and he knows it. He was originally a survivor of a controlled cull back in the days when elephant poaching had all but ceased. Since then he had been raised in a park in South Africa, before Doug had the chance to bring him, and two female elephants to Botswana where they live a managed life. This usually means that they walk and browse through the bush for around 12 plus hours a day with Doug, mixing with all of the wildlife of the region, including wild family groups of elephant.

Upon meeting Jabu I was impressed with just how calm he was at meeting a complete stranger, and also how careful he was at not knocking me flying. The injured limb was about the same diameter as my body (and I’m no racing snake!), and the way I approach chronic lameness issues like this is not to go straight for the joint in question, but rather to start to address the altered states within the other structures that have begun to compensate for it.

This he seemed to like and we began with some standing work which he accepted straight away. After a break and some more walking we then attempted a little work with him lying against a termite mound, and again this too he accepted. This was enough for day one.

Walking back to camp we passed around 8 giraffe and it was at this point that I learnt that these particular elephants like to chase things, and Doug’s main job is to persuade them otherwise. This he would calmly do by talking to them in his soft American accent, and they would vocalise back to him and generally respond to his requests.

On day two I helped Doug and Sandi prepare the elephants for their day in the bush, which was to include a guest encounter, where privileged tourists can spend a few hours learning about elephant natural history and behaviour, in the company of these incredible ambassadors for the species, all set within a private conservancy within the delta. I was included so that the guests could find out more about what we were trying to do. Suddenly my class had grown!

The guest encounter went extremely well, with them walking with the elephants for a while, and learning all about what role elephants play in the environment.

After a spot of lunch, in an “Out of Africa” scenario the guests left and I set about performing the first treatment of the day. Again all went well, until I attempted a little more vigorous work around his shoulder whilst he was lying against a termite mound. Something spooked him, and I just dodged the kick!

This seemed a prudent time to get Douglas to perform this part of the work whilst I talked him through it. With the nature of Jabu’s injury and the duration he had been compensating for it, I knew that my visit was going to involve me training Douglas to carry on the work once I returned to the UK. Jabu just moved the schedule forward a day or two!

There were two big male lions resting in the shade of the trees 100yds from where I had to board my light

To be fair he was extremely gentle with me, and bore no grudge when he stood up afterwards … thankfully!

For the rest of the week we went out, performed treatments with me trying to work out what could be done, and then to train Doug as fast as possible so that he could carry on once I returned to the UK. He was a phenomenal student and soaked it all up as if he’d been doing osteopathy all of his life. As well as treating Jabu we also tried to help Morula, the other female, who appeared to still be grieving the loss of the third elephant that used to make up their little group. Sadly she had passed away earlier in the year and since then Doug and Sandi had observed changes in her behaviour. She was by far the harder of the two for me to work with. One minute she would want me to, and the next she would try to avoid me — which I obviously let her do.

When she really wanted my attention though was when I’d spotted a beautiful green snake in a tree (non-venomous, as confirmed by Doug) and Sandi and I were trying to photograph it. She nearly pushed the tree over onto us in order to be noticed!

Her problems appeared to be truly psycho-somatic. Using a mix of techniques to calm her involuntary mechanism (IVM) I could intermittently work with her. When she did engage with me it was very humbling.

All in all the treatment and training went far better than I could have wished for. The other wildlife encounters were equally memorable, including lion walking through the camp when I was on my own — certainly exciting, as was the wild elephant family that decided to move in one night, and which we had to coax away from our tents and solar panels, armed with nothing more than torches and a small can of pepper spray (only to be used if one gets right in your face, I was told!). I was more worried I’d spray myself in the face if it had come to that! The monkeys, baboon, hornbills and squirrels all made it great, as did the male bush buck that slept outside my tent most nights, except for the first night when I saw a hyena snout trying to push through the mesh next to where I was sleeping. To me this was what I’d come to experience.

Even when I left there were two big male lions resting in the shade of the trees 100yds from where I had to board my light aircraft to re-join civilisation. What a send off. What an experience.

My thanks to Douglas and Sandi groves for welcoming me into their lives, for being such receptive students of osteopathy, and the continuing work we are doing; and a massive thank you to my sponsor, Kaye Nicholson who made the trip possible in the first place.

Finally, I owe a huge thank you to Jabu, and Morula for allowing me into their world.


Tony Nevin, BSc (Hons) Ost, DO is Clinical Director on the MSc Animal Osteopathy programme, run through the McTimoney College of Chiropractic, Oxon. He also lectures nationally and internationally; runs unique wildlife workshops; and is a prolific writer, presenter, and broadcaster. His radio show “The Missing Link” on Corinium Radio is the only one of it’s kind and is rapidly gaining a loyal listenership. For more than 6 years he chaired The Society of Osteopaths in Animal Practice (SOAP), which recently changed its name to the Association of Animal Osteopaths (AAO).

For more information contact Tony at
+44 7831 759339

Tony Nevin